Are You Avoiding Something?

We all have things we'd rather not do: parts of our jobs, school, or everyday life can be aversive and unenjoyable. And most of us would admit to, at times, putting off the more unpleasant or anxiety-provoking tasks rather than getting them out of the way.

escape key to avoid situations.jpg

There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself a break if you’re feeling overwhelmed or exhausted, but if you’re routinely avoiding activities, people or places that are important in your life, the short-term relief you experience from avoiding them may be causing more longer-term problems. Here’s why:

  • Every time you avoid something out of fear, you validate the fear, so it grows

  • When you tell yourself you’re unable to do something ot won’t be good at it, you begin to believe it

  • Avoiding something takes away the opportunity to practice

  • The more you avoid something, the less used you are to the feelings that it evokes, and the more likely to become overwhelmed

  • Avoiding certain tasks (say, banking) may cause problems that eventually grow over your head, making them even more upsetting to address

As an example, let’s take someone who finds talking on the phone anxiety-provoking. Whenever the phone rings, their heart starts beating faster, their palms get sweaty, and they feel nauseous. They know important calls are coming in, but they don’t answer or call back, and thus feel guilty and worried. This guilt and worry adds to the already existing anxiety, and increases the physical and emotional discomfort. Not to mention the thoughts about being incompetent or imagining the potentially disastrous outcomes – and now you have the perfect justification to never answer the phone again.

Because these emotions and thoughts go unchallenged, they end up feeling like the truth. As we don’t have the chance to practice our phone conversation skills, this person may actually become quite poor at handling phone calls. But mostly, their confidence decreases. And quite often, this starts to spread into other areas of life – like emails, in-person conversations with people they don’t know well, etc..

Avoidance results in more avoidance, which is why it’s risky to let it to go on – even if it’s not having consequences yet. It’s okay not to like something – as long as you can do it if you have to.

If you’d like to start challenging your avoidance and building your confidence, start small. Make a list of steps to gradually increase your skills and tolerance to a situation. Repeat each step enough times that your anxiety decreases to a tolerable level. Then increase the level of difficulty/anxiety of the next step, and repeat again until you feel reasonably confident. And on and on, until you can do what you need to.

While you’re doing your feared activity, try to be present in the moment, and notice your feelings. If they seem unmanageable, you can use slow controlled breathing, or tensing and relaxing your muscles to calm yourself. You can plan ahead for moments you know will be challenging. Be kind to yourself, and enlist the support of someone close if you need it initially.

Try to change your inner monologue about it: from “I can’t do this” to “I’m not that comfortable doing this.” Another tip is to try adding a “yet”: “I’m not comfortable doing this.. yet.” “I’m not very good at this… yet.” Accept that there will be some discomfort, and work to tolerate it. Mindfulness practice can be useful in this regard and help you become more familiar with the physical sensations. 

If you’re unsure of how to do this alone, or you think you may need to work on the sources of your anxiety or avoidance, a trained counsellor or psychologist can help you. Taking that first step towards addressing your avoidance is like saying to yourself that you will eventually be able to do it, and your confidence will be up already.

Julie Farrar